Museum Life: deciding what to acquire

Museums are often approached for potential acquisitions, everything from Grandmother’s wedding dress to a pair of knickers. As many fashion collections are at storage capacity it’s essential to carefully consider new acquisitions. Collection management issues have previously been written about at Worn Though, in particular de-accessioning and storage. In this post I’d like to look at some of the ways museums decide what to acquire into a collection.

Obviously a Museum cannot acquire everything. I think a fashion and dress collection should both represent the common as well as the extraordinary. It should include, for example a beautiful evening gown by Valentino as well as everyday clothing. What I find fascinating are the stories behind the outfits. It is stories of the wearer, manufacture and events surrounding an outfit that I am most drawn to.

Thinking about this, I’ve made three broad topics describing some of reasons that objects may be acquired, they include: the spectacular, the unique and the historically significant.

The spectacular

Fashion is often acquired because it is considered highly significant to fashion history. Examples may include a Fortuny gown, a Dior suit or a Vionnet evening dress. Examples of high-end historic and contemporary designer fashion, these pieces are often some of the most significant pieces in a collection.

Clothing ensemble, women's, designed and made by Collette Dinnigan, Sydney, worn by Catherine Martin, Australia Collection: Powerhouse Museum Photo: Marinco Kodjanovski

Dress, women's, designed and made by Akira Isogawa, worn by Catherine Martin, Sydney, 2002 Collection: Powerhouse Museum Photo: Marinco Kodjanovski

The Powerhouse Museum recently acquired a collection of clothing owned by Sydney costume designer Catherine Martin. The wife of Director Baz Luhrman, Martin was the costume designer for films Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge and the upcoming remake of The Great Gatsby. The collection consists of part of her personal wardrobe and film costumes, including examples from international designers such as Prada and Australian designers such as Nicola Finetti. Glynis Jones, Curator of Fashion and Dress at the Museum describes this collection, ‘Catherine Martin’s personal wardrobe enhances the Museum’s contemporary fashion and dress collection with significant examples of work from Australian and international designer labels including Easton Pearson, Collette Dinnigan, Willow, Akira Isogawa, Chanel, Mui Mui, Jill Sander, Comme des Garons and Prada.’

The unique

Items are sometimes acquired into the collection not because they are examples from a high fashion house , rather because they are rare and intriguing. An example of this is a collection of stockings acquired by the Powerhouse Museum in 2006. The collection was put together by the donor who saw that stockings were not being collected or researched. The donor developed a special interest in nylons after studying 19th Century pornography literature and advertisements. The acquiring curator describes the collection, ‘as a social narrative, these stockings provide an insight into social, fashion and in some instances, cultural customs of the different periods represented’. Highlights from this collection include a pair of silk stockings made for Queen Victoria, early artificial silk stockings, a pair of woolen stockings worn for sea bathing, and two pairs patterned with the faces of the four Beatles.’

Stockings (pair), women's, nylon, maker unknown, United States of America, c. 1948 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Stockings (pair) with packaging, Highball, women's, nylon / paper / plastic, made by Mary Quant, England, 1964 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

These stockings would not have been particularly significant at the time of  manufacture. Their significance and rarity is due to the way they were collected by the donor. The collection is unique as a whole.

The historically significant

Finally garments are also acquired because they represent a significant part of history. At the Powerhouse Museum the collection contains many pieces of Australian social and historic importance. One of the best examples of this is a small boys dress worn by John Marsden the son of significant Colonial clergyman Samuel Marsden. John wore this dress when he died, age 2 into a pot of boiling water. This is a rare surviving example of children’s every day dress and probably would not have survived if it were not worn at the time of his death. A simple garment, it is significant as it is one of the few surviving examples of early Colonial Australian dress.

Dress, boys, cotton, worn by John Marsden, probably made by Elisabeth Marsden, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1803 Collection: Powerhouse Museum Photo: Southa Bourn

Much thought and consideration is put into acquiring objects for a fashion and dress collection. Items are often acquired, as they are spectacular examples of fashion, for being unique and rare and for significant to history. Careful selection of objects will help create a diverse and healthy collection continually used for the future study and display of dress.

First image: Film costume, from the movie, ‘Moulin Rouge’,part of Catherine Martin collection, designed by Baz Luhrmann / Catherine Martin / Angus Strathie, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 2000, Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Photo: Sue Stafford




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  • jenna March 03, 2012 07.56 am

    Thank you for this excellent, concise and informative post. I am so glad you are sharing this information about the work of dress curators and the decisions they face in terms of acquisitions. In my current voluntary role at the Museum of London, I am assisting in the writing of acquisitions reports to the museum’s committee – in a sense I think of myself as a sort of advocate making the case for the significance and relevance of the items to the museum’s remit and existing holdings. It is an exciting aspect of museum work, and is I find, rather misunderstood, even by the museum-going public.
    It is however often a thrill to see the sorts of things people are donating to museum collections – as you mention it is the stories behind these garments that are often what makes them extraordinary!

  • Rebecca March 04, 2012 06.24 pm


    Yes, this topic is fascinating.
    I like how you describe yourself as an advocate. This is how I feel about the objects I work with. Often the stories behind a garment or textile are not always obvious and I think part of the role of a curator (or any collection staff member) is to draw them out…

    It will also be interesting in the future to look at this period of collecting in Museums. With so many budget cuts in the cultural sector throughout the world, I wonder how this is affecting collecting.

    So great to hear your experiences Jenna!
    Now, back to work on yet another acquisitions…


  • Alden O’Brien March 05, 2012 10.58 am

    Well said, but there’s more to be said. It’s important to note that different museums’ missions will mean very different collecting criteria. An art museum will want high-style examples of the pinnacle of design and in pristine condition; a runway example of a designer’s work would be terrific, but other couture and high-fashion examples will dominate. A historical society will need to focus on things with a history of use or manufacture in that town/county/region; whether high-style or everyday, if it doesn’t come from that area, they have no business taking it. Other collections like the one I curate (the DAR Museum in Washington DC, USA) collect things not regionally, but documenting the history of civilian dress within a date range. I wouldn’t want a runway example of a design because it wasn’t typical. I may take something rare and interesting in less than pristine shape if it’s a good example of something historically significant (whether a good story is attached or whether it’s just a garment that I’m not likely to find a better extant example of). Thus, broad categories of reasons to collect a garment are not enough to explain what gets collected–the focus of each museum’s collection has to be taken into account.

  • Rebecca March 05, 2012 06.33 pm

    Dear Alden,

    Many thanks for your comment.
    You are completely correct in pointing out that collection development policies or ‘missions’ are key to what an institution acquires.

    Large Museums, such as the one I work at do not solely collect either high fashion or pieces that document the history of a particular period or people. Rather, as a museum of design and science, our prerogative is to collect things that are examples of human innovation, creativity as well as documenting the history of dress and textiles. I think it’s also important to point out that although historic dress may be collected for it history of a place/people/time, it may also be an example from its time of innovation in design, manufacture and style, just like contemporary high fashion.

    Thanks, Rebecca

  • Joy D. March 06, 2012 02.46 pm

    Another poignant article that I will take into consideration. There has to be some politics involved in acquiring one item and not the other. I did not see this covered in this article. But overall this sheds light on the business of acquiring.


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